Integrating Accessibility Staff Into Your In-Person Events

A diverse group of people welcoming each other. One is in a wheelchair and another person is using a walking cane.

Image Description: A diverse group of people welcoming each other. One is in a wheelchair and another person is using a walking cane.

Integrating Accessibility Staff Into Your In-Person Events

Effective training in disability etiquette for accessibility volunteers and staff is crucial to avoiding ableist interactions, and ensures a positive experience for attendees with disabilities at in-person events.

May 08, 2024

A brief overview of how to integrate accessibility staff into in-person events: 

  • Salesforce's Office of Accessibility recently introduced new initiatives at TrailblazerDX to support attendees with disabilities, including a Quiet Room, captioned presentations, and accessible shuttle services.

  • More than 100 accessibility volunteers were trained and deployed at the event in roles such as Quiet Zone ambassadors and sighted escorts, highlighting Salesforce's commitment to greater accessibility and inclusion.

  • Effective training in disability etiquette for volunteers and staff is crucial to avoiding ableist interactions and ensures a positive experience for attendees with disabilities.

  • Basic principles of disability etiquette include asking everyone about their accommodation needs, avoiding assumptions about a person’s disability, respecting personal space and mobility devices, and using inclusive language.

A champion of accessibility and inclusion in the tech industry, Salesforce has made increased efforts to ensure its in-person events more accommodate professionals with disabilities

In fact, the cloud-based software company’s Office of Accessibility implemented several new initiatives at the recent TrailblazerDX.

At this in-person conference aimed at shaping the future of AI-driven app development, Salesforce featured a Quiet Room for attendees sensitive to overstimulation, captioning for keynote speakers and breakout sessions, and an accessible shuttle service between different event locations. 

The most expansive effort centered around the more than 100 accessibility volunteers who staffed the event.

Amy Wood, Accessibility Manager for Salesforce’s Office of Accessibility, and Joanna Del Orbe Mejia, a communications and enablement specialist at Salesforce, spoke with InclusionHub about what goes into creating an effective accessibility staff for in-person events.

Enlisting Accessibility Staff & Volunteers

There are several ways organizations can enlist staff and volunteers, but the Office of Accessibility has found a great deal of success using Staffingforce, a firm that provides temporary and full-time staffing for all industries.

Additionally, Salesforce benefits from employee volunteers who get to attend the event so long as they meet the minimum requirement of working three accessibility staff shifts.

“Those shifts are filled pretty quickly” as word from other employees spreads about how meaningful the experience is, explains Wood. It’s expanded their horizons regarding disabilities. 

“People walk away from these events saying, ‘I hadn’t really thought about disabilities, or what a sighted escort might do,’” she continues. “They just walk away with a sense of appreciation for accessibility. We had somebody at Dreamforce last year who was blind, but he wasn’t walking with a white cane, and he didn’t have glasses or anything, so I don’t think he was what other people were expecting.”

Salesforce created four accessibility staff roles at TrailblazerDX 2024.

General staffers fulfilled accommodations requests and managed a Disability Help Desk, while Quiet Zone ambassadors ensured protocols for the space were kept. Sighted escorts were present to assist blind or low-vision attendees with getting around the event, and keynote ushers ensured people with disabilities were able to find accessible seating. 

For organizations hosting in-person events, Wood recommends including these types of volunteer roles as a powerful part of becoming more accessible. Integrating accessibility staff into in-person events, she believes, is one of the more impactful ways an organization can demonstrate a clear commitment to greater accessibility and inclusion

But it must be done properly. 

Properly Training Events Team Members & Volunteers 

“Disabilities are a sensitive topic,” Del Orbe Mejia explains when discussing how to train volunteers effectively. “Volunteers come to the event with a lot of emotions. They want to help, but sometimes it’s not the correct way. One bad interaction can ruin a lot of things.”

She believes disability etiquette should be the foundation of training.

From learning what to say and not say, to avoiding assumptions and asking people before helping them, disability etiquette diminishes the chances an event attendee will feel otherized or have ableist interactions.  

“Training is so critical, and making sure that we’re following disability etiquette is so important,” stresses Wood. “If somebody says something that is ableist or uses outdated terminology, it can really ruin their experience.”

Being an accessibility staff member can feel overwhelming sometimes, especially if volunteers have limited experience with disabilities. 

“For the sighted escorts, if they’re going to be helping somebody who is blind navigate the venue, that can be a little bit of pressure,” she continues. “Training is about giving them a quick download on how to do it. Taking this pressure off of them helps a lot, so they’re not overthinking it or worrying that this person is going to get hurt. It empowers them to do a good job.” 

Some basic disability etiquette principles for accessibility staff and volunteers include:

  • When asking about the need for an accommodation, make sure you ask everybody. This avoids singling out a person or attracting unwanted attention.
  • Don’t assume somebody has a disability or needs a particular accommodation. It’s always best to ask. Keep it general, though. Inquire whether they need any accommodations to access or fully participate in the event.

  • Seek permission before touching a person’s wheelchair. As with other mobility devices, a wheelchair is an extension of the person’s personal space. It’s central to their personal autonomy.

  • When talking for more than a few minutes with a person who uses a wheelchair, it’s best to join their eye level. This prevents both of you from having stiff neck muscles later on.

  • Describe physical spaces and distances when being a sighted escort. Noting a small step or an approaching group of people can be helpful information for an attendee who is blind or has low vision. Let them set the walking pace.

  • When interacting with somebody who is d/Deaf or hard of hearing, don’t presume they know American Sign Language. Shouting or speaking slowly isn’t usually helpful either. This usually makes it more difficult for people to read lips.

These are just a few of the basics, and there’s a rather extensive list of what you should and shouldn’t say. Using inclusive language is central to creating a positive experience for attendees with disabilities. 

You’re not going to eliminate ableist language from a person’s vocabulary overnight—but there are resources available listing common phrases to avoid, or more inclusive alternatives to employ. 

For instance, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication maintains a disability language style guide that covers a lot of linguistic territory. The Office of Accessibility has also produced its own disability language guide for accessibility staff and volunteers

Norms around language are constantly changing. People have different language preferences. What bothers one person may not offend another. Volunteers are instructed to follow the lead of others and listen to what language people use when referring to their disability or medical condition. 

Person-first language (e.g., “person who uses a wheelchair”) is generally recommended and considered the most respectful. This avoids reducing a person to their disability. 

However, it’s also important to keep in mind that some people prefer identity-first language, which emphasizes how essential their disability is to a person’s sense of self. Instances of this include “Deaf” “autistic,” or “blind person.” 

Ultimately, there is no universal agreement, and even the best-intentioned accessibility volunteer is likely to say something incorrectly. 

“I think for the most part people do really well,” Wood says. “They’re afraid to say the wrong thing. We all are. Some people may say ‘impairment,’ which isn’t always an inclusive term, but I usually don’t stop them, either. I know they’re just trying to speak and express their feelings, which is a great part of being involved with the disability community.” 

Salesforce is a founding partner of InclusionHub, a resource for digital accessibility committed to helping businesses and organizations prioritize digital inclusion. To learn more about how your organization can better support professionals with disabilities at your in-person events, visit Salesforce’s a11y website.

Written by Jeffrey Howard

Jeffrey Howard is a senior inbound content developer at Hypha HubSpot Development and regular contributor at InclusionHub.

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